The New Tower of Babel

06Mar13

Anybody with some knowledge of the Hebrew Bible knows the story of the Tower of Babel: A unified humanity sharing a common language attempts to build a tower “with its top in the heavens.” God thwarts their effort by confusing the languages of the workers, making it impossible for them to understand each other. The tower is never completed and humans spread across the globe speaking different languages.

Engraving: The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865). From Wikimedia Commons

Engraving: The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865). From Wikimedia Commons.

I was reminded of this story from Genesis a few days ago while checking the news on a listserv run by university website designers and programmers. One of the list’s participants asked the group if anyone was developing mobile applications (apps) for the Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system (OS).

Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to compete in the mobile OS market against the industry leaders Apple, with their IOS, and Google, with its Android operating system. So far, it’s not making serious inroads—IOS and Android have up to 90% of the mobile OS market between them, depending on which survey you read.

Some of the folks on the listserv wrote that if any of these new mobile OS platforms reached a certain percentage of market share (say 5%), they would be compelled to create versions of all their mobile apps for it. Others doubted whether any new mobile OS would gain enough market share to make the effort worth it.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I think the whole effort smacks of folly.

Some folks don’t remember it, but when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to an adoring crowd in 2007, the device didn’t run any “outside apps” at all. It was essentially a small tablet computer running a phone, a music player, a few built-in applications, and a very capable mobile web browser. For everything else, programmers were supposed to develop web-based applications to run within the iPhone’s browser. Jobs didn’t see the need for a native IOS software development kit (SDK)—everything could simply run in the browser.

Software developers thought otherwise, and pressured Apple to allow third-party applications to run on the hugely-popular device. A few months later, Apple did just that, releasing an SDK and creating the App Store, an Apple-controlled marketplace for IOS applications.

Google’s Android took a similar route, and now there are hundreds of thousands of apps for these two dominant mobile platforms. Anyone writing mobile apps generally creates a version for IOS and Android.

But more and more players are coming to the mobile computing space, which is experiencing rapid growth while the traditional desktop PC market stagnates. Serious contenders include:

  • Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8: After a number of missteps, Microsoft has created a mobile OS that has garnered some praise in the tech community and provides a seamless visual experience across devices through it’s “Metro” interface, which is consistent with Windows 8 and Windows RT.
  • Blackberry 10: Blackberry produced the most popular smartphone platform prior to the iPhone, then nearly disappeared from the market while retooling to compete with it. The new Blackberry 10 devices have gotten good reviews, and it’s possible that they have a shot at regaining many of their corporate customers.
  • Ubuntu Touch: Ubuntu has long been a popular desktop Linux distribution. A while back, they changed their default graphical user interface from GNOME (which is used in many Linux installations) to a new simplified interface called Unity. Not everyone liked the change, but it’s purpose is now clear with the introduction of Ubuntu Touch, a mobile version of Linux that will provide a common interface for phones, tablets, desktop PCs and “smart” television sets.
  • Firefox OS: The makers of the popular web browser recently announced this new mobile OS which allows HTML5 applications to run directly on mobile hardware. They are positioning the platform for price-conscious markets and have teamed up with several wireless carriers.
  • Symbian: This was the number one smartphone OS in the world until late 2010, and there are still tons of phones out there (many made by Nokia) running it.

And there are others; one article I recently read described eight distinct mobile systems vying for a piece of the mobile computing pie.

I came from the business world. It makes perfect sense to me that a company creating, say, a popular mobile computer game would find it profitable to port that game over to as many platforms as possible as long as its market share would allow them to profit from the work.

Things are different, though, for those of us working in the university or non-profit sectors. Developers in these situations aren’t making money off these mobile apps—they are simply created to be conveniences for users toting iPhones or Android smartphones. If any of these other mobile platforms become popular enough, a choice has to be made:

  • Create versions of their mobile apps for the new platform, indeed, for any new platform that gains significant market share. The resources expended in doing this end up squarely in the “expense” column of the organization’s balance sheet.
  • Decide that only IOS and Android are to be officially supported with mobile apps, and that other users will simply have to get their information from the university or organization’s website instead.

If you consider the latter choice, it becomes clear that in almost all cases, the information needed by mobile computing users will have to exist on the institution’s website anyway, so why even bother to create and maintain IOS or Android apps? In any case, all these mobile platforms have capable web browsers, so where’s the smartest place to expend resources in creating internet-based information?

How to eat up your development budget: create version of all your "apps" for all these mobile platforms.

How to eat up your development budget: create versions of every one of your  “apps” for all these mobile platforms.

It’s the 21st century Tower of Babel. The original promise of the World Wide Web was that information could be coded in such a way as to be readable on all sorts of computing devices. This still holds true, and with adaptive design coding, it’s now possible to create websites that work quite well on devices ranging from phones to widescreen TVs. Now fragmentation has begun, and developers are facing the expensive possibility of having to create multiple versions of what is essentially the same message. To what end?

I think Steve Jobs got it right with his original concept, at least when it comes to developers working in areas that don’t directly profit from application creation. If someone asks me whether HMML has “an app for that,” I’m inclined to supply them with the URL of an “old fashioned” web page, a universal language in a world of babbling tongues.

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One Response to “The New Tower of Babel”

  1. I love it whenever people get together and share opinions.
    Great site, stick with it!


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